Hang out in Los Angeles long enough, and there are things you come to expect. For instance, certain bohunk actors who claim to want privacy but then conduct interviews in high-profile restaurants where everybody gawks; stars who say they don’t want people blowing smoke up their asses, then stare into space when the check arrives. The same guy who asks if you can spare a fiver for the valet because—heh heh—they left home without any cash. And then there is Viggo Mortensen, the chisel-jawed, almost-famous actor who this month stars as Aragorn, defender of all things Hobbit in the $100 million film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A guy who, in addition to being a bohunk, also happens to be a painter, photographer, spoken-word poet (really), and overall decent human being.
As in: Mortensen leaped at the check at a restaurant near his home in Santa Monica. He proffered wine, sips of his coffee (“This is good—you’ve got to try this.”) He even asked if he could buy dessert.
Mortensen called to see how the story was going. “Do you need anything else?” he asked in a gravelly yet sensitive voice. “I’d like to help.” Like to help? Unheard of.
Mortensen did all of the aforementioned and still managed to cover his own valet parking.
Now that the megawatt glare of epic box-office has turned his way, one can only hope that he will remain so chivalrous. The Lord of the Rings is, after all, not a single movie but rather a tripartite studio franchise. Although the film features other actors (Elijah Wood as Frodo, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Liv Tyler as an elfin queen), Mortensen’s part is actually kind of important, unlike the beefcakey roles he’s played in such chick-driven flicks as A Perfect Murder, 28 Days, or A Walk on the Moon, in which he bedded, respectively, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock, and Diane Lane. Weighing the potential of his own fame, Mortensen stares uncomfortably into his fish and chips. Lost for words, he quotes Kant: “Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of the few.”
According to Hollywood lore, the role of Aragorn was coveted by many. Rumor has it Edward Norton and Mel Gibson were considered, while Stuart Townsend (star of the upcoming Anne Rice movie The Queen of the Damned, but more importantly, boyfriend of Charlize Theron) was originally cast—only to leave after “creative differences” with director Peter Jackson. As a result, Mortensen got the call, provided he could get on a plane to New Zealand the next day. “I had dinner that night with my son, Henry, and I was just like, ‘This is absurd. I don’t have time to prepare,'” he recalls. Fortunately, 13-year-old Henry knew the material. “This is such a cool part,” he told his dad. “You can do this.” Just to be sure, Mortensen sped through Tolkien’s tome on the plane. He could have slowed down. What followed was a year and a half of shooting. Still, Mortensen’s commitment wasn’t lost on his colleagues. “Viggo took acting to another level,” says co-star Elijah Wood. “He kept a sword in his car. During one of the battle scenes, he chipped his tooth in half, and he was like, ‘We have to keep shooting. Somebody get some superglue.'”
Mortensen didn’t spring from the womb wanting to be an actor. He spent his childhood dashing between New York, Venezuela, Argentina, and Denmark after his peripatetic father, who took jobs like running a farm or managing a business, mainly because they seemed interesting. When his parents split, young Viggo went with his mom to upstate New York and took an interest in creative writing and photography. In his early twenties, he penned poetry and short stories and worked odd jobs in carpentry and bartending. “I was 23 when I started thinking about acting, which made me an old man by movie standards,” Mortensen says with a laugh. An acting class led to bit parts in films like Witness. Then Mortensen met Exene Cervenka, the lead singer of the ephemeral L.A. band X, while making Salvation!, an unfortunate eighties satire about a heavy-metal Christian-rock-star. The two were married; Henry was born. The marriage didn’t endure but his interest in film did. Today, Mortensen has more than 30 selections at Blockbuster, ranging from acclaimed performances in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady to his bodice-ripping work in A Walk on the Moon.
At 43, Mortensen is a relic by Hollywood standards. Today, though, unselfconsciously dressed in a T-shirt and Dickies, it would appear that the Geritol is working. “Women go nuts over Viggo,” says his Rings co-star Liv Tyler, “but he’s the kind of guy who never looks at himself. On the set, we each had a station with a big mirror. His was covered by pictures of his son and a photo collage of the crew. There wasn’t one little speck left for him to look.” Digging for one last compliment, Tyler adds, “He never got a massage. Not once.”
“Tolkien lived in a time of great nationalism, paranoia, and racism,” Mortensen says. “Not unlike the way we are today.” The actor can talk about Lord of the Rings until, as Marlon Brando puts it, the pigs eat his brother, but he hates talking about himself. When asked what kind of painting and photography one can expect to see at his February show at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station gallery complex, the Renaissance man just mumbles, “Mmmmm…come see.”
In the meantime, Lord of the Rings looms. Chat rooms are already abuzz with speculation about whether Mortensen is right for his part; the fan conventions are booked; action figures are being manufactured. Until December 19, it will be impossible to say whether the movie will live up to the hype—only 26 brief, albeit thrilling, minutes were finished at press time. Asked if he worries that he’ll end up typecast like Sir Alec Guiness, a man who once asked a fan never to see Star Wars again, Mortensen says, “If that happens to me, hopefully I’ll remember that Kant quote.” He laughs. “Know what I mean?”